Is The Virtual Law Firm Model Coming Up Short?

virtual law firm home officeIt sure is cool to talk about the virtual law firm, isn’t it?  Read the magazines and blogs catering to lawyers, wander the floors of the conferences – you can’t miss the bright, shiny new objects.

I’m writing this from my workspace, located on the top floor of a home on a leafy street.  I’ve done three consultations today, fired off a bunch of emails, and had meetings with my staff and partners as we go through our week.

My office is about 30 minutes away by subway, but I won’t be there today.  In fact, there’s a very good chance that I won’t be there more than a few days this month.

When I’m in the office, it’s to meet with clients personally and look folks in the eye.  But actually work there?

Not so much.

I can be home when my family comes home, and I get to be the one who takes my son to school every morning.

I have lunch on my sofa, where I can watch a few minutes of television without interruption.

If there’s a lull in the action, I can take a walk around the neighborhood or grab a cup of coffee.

When my family wanted to take a two week vacation to Florida, I didn’t miss a beat.  I could likely live thousands of miles from my practice without losing traction.

This Is Not A Virtual Law Firm

When you look at what I’ve got going, it’s not a virtual law firm.

According to the ABA, the virtual lawyer has “found dramatic new ways to communicate and collaborate with clients and other lawyers, produce documents, settle disputes, interact with courts, and manage legal knowledge. ELawyering encompasses all the ways in which lawyers can do their work using the Web and associated technologies.”

That’s not me.  I use technology as a tool, much as attorneys before me used fax machines, copies, and typewriters.  But it’s just that – a toolkit.

The ABA Elawyering Task Force tells us that, “[t]o be successful in the coming era, lawyers will need to know how to practice over the Web, manage client relationships in cyberspace, and ethically offer “unbundled” services.”

Bullshit.

Is The Virtual Law Firm A Failure?

It seems as if the lifestyle design folks are starting to get their hooks into the legal profession, touting the virtual law firm as a way to work less, make more, and sit on the beach sipping drinks with umbrellas in them.

At the same time, I hear whispers from virtual lawyers who complain that they’re not making money.  They’ve got these software packages, they read the books, they follow the virtual law firm gurus.  In spite of this, success eludes them.

Clients get forms spitting out of the computer, emails and portals.  Their lawyers are using these “dramatic new ways” rather than focusing on the real need of human contact and personal service.

Some would say it’s a failure of marketing.  Others would say their entire business model makes them somehow less than a “real” lawyer.  I disagree with both points.

When I decided to become an untethered lawyer, I did so because I had an infant at home and didn’t want to be sitting in the office while he grew up.  Not only that, my office had been just a few blocks from Ground Zero on that sunny Tuesday morning in September; I had experienced the difficulties inherent in transacting business in the face of that tragedy.  I’d been toying with being location-independent for some time, so it was just the final push in the right direction.

The Virtual Law Firm’s Missing Ingredient

The personal relationship with my client is the thing I find most fun about being a lawyer.  Becoming a virtual lawyer didn’t fit with me because I didn’t want to sit behind a computer screen all day.  I needed to be in the real world, solving real problems.  I realized early on that the mindset was more important that the technology.

Turns out, clients feel the same way.

Email doesn’t substitute for a phone call.  A phone call isn’t the replacement for a handshake.

Those who offer the virtual law firm are selling something most people don’t want.  People want to be able to make a personal connection with other people, to build trust in a lawyer’s expertise.  They don’t want to be met with a password-encrypted firewall and triple-redundant backup systems.

How To Make It Ready For Prime Time?

There are lots of organizational concerns that go into creating a virtual law firm.  You need staffing, management, marketing and file management solutions.  You need to figure out how to connect with people who are not necessarily in front of you.  In fact, you’ve got to determine when being face-to-face is best for the client.

What you don’t need or want is for a set of tools to function as a solution without more.  A VLO platform may help, but it’s not smart to tout it as a revolutionary application for changing your entire business model.

That’s my take on it.  But I’m curious to hear from you, practitioners working in a virtual law firm environment.  Is it working for you?  And if not, where do you think it’s coming up short?

Image credit:  TranceMist.